How Pizza Hut Helped Seal the Fate of Communism in the Soviet Union

That's delicious freedom, comrade. (Pizza Hut)

Nothing fuels late-night office hours like ordering a pizza. Whether the office has to finish a big project, take inventory or overhaul a filing system, pizza is a crowd pleaser. A few well-placed pizzas can even help fuel a determined counter-coup from Soviet communist hardliners, if need be. It turns out that no one out-pizzas the Hut, not even the Red Army.

Or outer space. Cosmonaut Yuri Usachov received a delivery aboard the International Space Station in 2001. (NASA)

In September 1990, the first-ever Pizza Hut opened in Moscow, capital of the newly established independent Russia and of the Soviet Union, which became two separate levels of governance in 1990. Moscow’s Pizza Hut was made possible by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (economic reform) and glasnost (openness). These policies paved the way for private enterprise in the Soviet Union -- and for Western companies to open up shop.

Muscovites flocked to Western brands like the first McDonald’s, which opened in Pushkin Square on Jan. 31, 1990. That first McDonald’s famously attracted 38,000 customers in its first days. Pizza Hut was so popular, a second location was opened that same year, which was a good thing for Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the future of Russian democracy.

While Soviet citizens might have loved American fast-food chains, not everyone was in love with Western democracy. The onetime iron curtain was corroding fast, as Gorbachev’s policies began showing the cracks in the Soviet system. Shortages for the most basic supplies were widespread, inflation was rampant and member states were breaking away from the USSR.

Meanwhile, America had so much cheese, we were putting it in the crust. (Pizza Hut)

The Soviet Union’s old guard watched as instability and economic despair grew across the country, blaming Gorbachev, as general secretary of the Communist Party, and his policies for its multitude of woes. At the same time Pizza Hut was opening its doors in Moscow, the KGB began planning regime change. It took them nearly a year to set the stage, but when Gorbachev took a holiday to his dacha, or second home, in the Crimea, the plotters took action.

Primary conspirators included Gennadiy Yanayev, the first and only vice president of the Soviet Union, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, Soviet Marshal Dmitriy Yazov, Interior Minister Boris Pugo, Chairman of the Peasants Union Vasily Starodubtsev and a handful of other plotters. On Aug. 19, 1991, the coup began.

Using the KGB and the Soviet military, the coup plotters locked Gorbachev in his dacha and announced to the world that he had taken ill while Vice President Yanayev assumed power and occupied Moscow with thousands of troops. Meanwhile, Yeltsin, who had been at a meeting in Kazakhstan, changed his flight plan. Instead of being arrested upon landing, he returned home, where the plotters also failed to arrest him.

Yeltsin gathered a group of Russian officials and legislators, all supporters of the new reforms, to the White House, the Russian parliament building. For the next few days, Russian leaders inside the White House would jockey for power against the communist coup. Outside, the communists would use the military to enforce its power while making speeches and pleas to the people through state-run media.

Yeltsin supporters awaiting the coup's military forces outside the White House in Moscow. (David Broad)

Meanwhile, the Pizza Hut down the street was firing on all cylinders. In spite of the military presence, Russians continued to order pizzas. One customer was a standout, however. Pizza Hut delivered 300 pizzas, 20 cases of Pepsi and “industrial quantities of coffee” to the Russian White House during the coup. Some say they were ordered by Yeltsin himself.

"Russians always have a way around,” Andrew Rafalat, Pizza Hut's director of operations for Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, told The New York Times in 1991.

The communist plot to overthrow the new order failed after pro-communist forces killed three civilians protesting against the coup. Soviet-Afghan War veteran Dmitry Komar was killed while blocking the view of an armored personnel carrier on its way to attack Yeltsin in the White House. As the vehicle dragged Komar’s lifeless body, Vladimir Usov tried to free Komar and was killed in the effort. Ilya Krichevsky was there to stand up for democracy and was killed by a stray bullet.

Their deaths were tragic, but it kept the Soviet forces from storming the Russian parliament building and violently forcing Yeltsin to concede. Gorbachev would award all three the honor of Hero of the Soviet Union, and they are remembered today as martyrs for democracy.

In the end, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR declared the coup illegal, the co-conspirators were arrested and Gorbachev returned to Moscow, where he resigned as general secretary of the Communist Party. Gorbachev himself wouldn’t be seen in a Pizza Hut until 1998, when he starred in a Pizza Hut commercial.

Days after the coup ended, Soviet Republics began to declare independence from the USSR On Dec. 25, 1991, the Soviet Union’s Red Banner was lowered at the Kremlin for the last time, replaced by the Russian Tricolor.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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